Distant Voices, Still Lives and Journeys of Desire

By Jason Wood


Distant Voices, Still Lives by Paul Farley, Bfi Modern Classics

The latest addition to the venerable Bfi Modern Classics series is dedicated to Distant Voices, Still Lives, Terence Davies’ elegiac debut feature. Set in ‘a world before Elvis, and in a Liverpool before the Beatles’, this intensely autobiographical meditation on a post-War working-class childhood remains one of the finest British films of the last twenty years, and its maker one of British cinema’s most original voices. Davies has not made a film since The House of Mirth (2000) and his treatment at the hands of UK film bodies and financiers is evidence of a shameful and almost criminal neglect.

Poet and broadcaster Paul Farley was an inspired choice to write this excellent monograph. At the beginning of the book he states that ‘We should go in fear of writing about things we admire’ yet he handles the task beautifully. Providing the bare biographical bones of Davies’ background and how the film – in essence the tale of the tension between a brutal domineering father and his household – evolved from the former book-keeper’s shorts Trilogy (Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration), Farley goes on to offer both an affecting personal response, as a Liverpudlian and as a poet, and an illuminating and persuasive exploration of Davies' unique visual style. A blending of spaces – the ‘short halls, stairways, coal cellars and meter cupboards of northern England’ – and sounds – the BBC shipping forecast, a pub sing-a-long, the strains of Vaughan Williams and Britten – of memory, Davies’ sensual and thrillingly sensory aesthetic is beautifully rendered by Farley’s inspired prose.

Davies recently detailed with characteristic candour his struggles with organisations such as the UK Film Council but events seem about to take a turn for the better. A new film, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song has been announced, and after its rousing reception at the recent 50th London Film Festival, the restoration of the magnificent Distant Voices, Still Lives will go on general release in February 2007. Time has done nothing to dim the film’s beauty and power; Farley’s book – to which Davies’ was a fulsome contributor – is a valuable and erudite companion piece.

Journeys of Desire European Actors in Hollywood: A Critical Companion, Edited by Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vincendeau, Bfi Publishing

 Since the early days of the American film industry, European actors have consistently been a major force in Hollywood. Screen idols such as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Audrey Hepburn, Maurice Chevalier, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who now pursues other interests) and Antonio Banderas, as well as scores of more modest players, have profoundly shaped 'American' cinema. They have also contributed to the propagation of European types and stereotypes such as the 'Russian' and Nordic queens played by Garbo and Dietrich, the French roués popularised by Chevalier, the fiery Latinos depicted by Banderas and the British arch-villains played with varying degrees of success and two-dimensionality by Steven Berkoff, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons and Tim Roth. Films such as Casablanca (1942), Bigger than Life (1956) Gigi (1958) and Green Card (1990), among many others, would, for better or for worse, not be the same without them.

Offering for the first time an exhaustive and comprehensive critical guide to European actors in American film, Journeys of Desire brings together 15 contextualising overview chapters followed by an expansive dictionary. The overviews provide ground-breaking case studies of prominent individuals and phenomena associated with the émigrés, such as the retired Russian officers who played crowds in silent films, the stereotyping of European actresses in vampish, 'bad women' roles, and the ultimate irony of Jewish actors playing Nazis. Ginette Vincendeau’s chapter on Jean Gabin is particularly fine, the French icon finding his Hollywood sojourn - enforced by the Second World War – an unhappy and dispiriting experience, commenting ‘ I was no longer what I wished to remain, that is a Frenchman’.

The A-Z entries on key individuals runs to over 900 European actors, taking in everyone from Victoria Abril to Mai Zetterling. Concise yet scholarly and with full American filmographies, the entries provide a snapshot of the émigrés experience for actors who tasted both failure and success. There does seem a bias towards certain performers, the entry on Jude Law seems particularly fulsome in its praise, but then Law’s track record in the States is undeniably impressive.

Drawing on contributions from a team of 70 international leading experts including José Arroyo and Charles Barr, the pedigree of the editors is impeccable. Alastair Phillips’ previous publications include City of Darkness, City of Light: Émigrés Filmmakers in Paris 1929-1939, whilst Vincendeau gave us the superlative Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. A very useful research tool and a pleasure to dip into, Journeys of Desire is a worthwhile addition to the shelves of anyone interested in cinema culture, history in general, and indeed Euro-American relations.

Jason Wood is a prolific writer and programmer. His latest book, on Mexican Cinema (The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema) was reviewed in Vertigo Volume 3, Issue 3